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I'm a Brit, currently in India. While a lot of the people I meet speak at least some English, and others speak fluent English, there are definitely times when it feels we're divided by a common language...

Problem #1 - words and phrases used in Indian English that aren't in British English. I've mostly got the hang of lakh, and I can normally guess what things like "please do the needful" mean, but there are quite a few others I'm still not understanding / understanding correctly

Problem #2 - words and phrases that I use, where no-one has the slightest clue what I'm on about! Sometimes it's fine, sometimes I have to have a few goes at rephrasing it to get a version that's understood, and sometimes it all seems fine but later I discovered they understood something completely different!

As someone new to India, who speaks British English (or something close to it), how do I go about adjusting to this alternate form?

(This is leaving aside any issues around accents - mine is apparently fairly well understood, but I foresee that someone with a stronger UK regional accent might struggle with that too)

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    Problem #2: Do you have any examples of such phrases ? – happybuddha Mar 14 '14 at 7:31
  • About every third thing I say...! – Gagravarr Mar 14 '14 at 9:46
  • Imagine how foreigners feel in UK, when they try their best to speak English but nobody understand them. Your in India so really you should be speaking Hindi. There is no such thing as Indian English, it just Indian people speaking broken English. -1 Indians are very hospitable and will try their best to speak to you in English. If you going to live there for longer you should be learning Hindi to show respect to them. – Piotr Kula Mar 14 '14 at 14:12
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    @ppumkin Linguists do consider Indian English to be a distinct dialect; English is not like French, where there is only one "correct" way determined by a central authority. English is moreover the lingua franca within India. Hindi is native to the north, and English may serve you better in the non-Hindi-speaking areas in the south and east of the country. – choster Mar 14 '14 at 15:00
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    @ppumkin Not all of India speaks Hindi as their first language! Where I am, most people seem to rather you speak English than Hindi... (True there's something to be said for learning some of the local language, but that isn't Hindi!) – Gagravarr Mar 14 '14 at 19:19
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Wouldn't it be great if airlines gave you a cheat sheet full of translations to current colloquialisms along with your immigration and customs declaration forms when you were about to land?

You'll be tempted to sort of smile-and-nod when you encounter this in an effort to not draw attention to yourself, feel silly, or otherwise feel like the odd person out. Don't do that, it's a tragic mistake to indicate that you understood something when you haven't, and that can lead to even more social awkwardness and faux pas.

There's nothing wrong with simply saying:

I'm sorry to interrupt you, I'm new here and I don't quite understand what (phrase) means. Would you mind explaining it to me and when / where I could use it too?

Notice the twofold nature of that question because you might be surprised to learn that parroting that very phrase to your boss might land you in a tub of hot water. Take notes, and keep your ears peeled, so to say.

You also want the reverse of that. If you say something that seems quite natural to you but gets you a bunch of stares in return, find out where the breakdown was, and what you could have said instead to have been well understood.

Watch out for the effects of immersion as well. Hold regular chats with friends back at home and learn how to avoid using those phrases, along with turning off the accent that you're certain to acquire after a period of time. Someone asked me if I was born in Manila due to my Philippine accent - that was a bit of a shock, I didn't realize I'd developed one that I'd need to consciously not use in certain settings.

There are variations of the Urban Dictionary in numerous languages, but you can't always count on them (1) existing and (2) being reliable. But, in a pinch, searching for certain phrases you've heard but couldn't ask about, or perhaps read in significant frequency and feel like you should understand generally yields interesting things.

Every 20 meters on my street there's writing on the wall that that says Bawal Umihi Dito. If you Google that translation, you'll get a chuckle.

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So I'm a person of Indian origin who has spent half his life in Massachusetts, and a couple of years ago moved to Mumbai.

I personally was always able to switch between accents, but in the past I could not use or understand Indian English to its complete extent.

I agree with @TimPost — you should be fine with asking around — but it is a useful skill if you plan to be here for a while.

Problem #1 - words and phrases used in Indian English that aren't in British English. I've mostly got the hang of lakh, and I can normally guess what things like "please do the needful" mean, but there are quite a few others I'm still not understanding / understanding correctly

This usually can be picked up by just talking to people. Newspapers and the like unfortunately (fortunately?) try to use correct English without any new phrases, though new words like "lakh", "babu", "bandh", "bungalow", "tiffin", "ragging", "ghat" (to name a few) are commonly used.

For what it's worth, most phrases are local — aside from a few universal ones ("do the needful"), most are specific to a locality and you probably will have a hard time finding a compilation of locality-specific phrases.

As for mangled grammar, I've found that there isn't any fixed style to it — while a lot of people tend to pattern their English on the basis of their Indic mother tongue, the way this is done varies widely. From what I've experienced, mangled grammar creates an involuntary mental block for those of us used to listening to / reading perfect English, but in itself is not hard to understand. While everyone has their personal brand of English grammar here, comprehension isn't obstructed (much), since that mental block doesn't occur to those used to random mangling of grammar.

In some cities (eg Bombay), an additional problem can be the inclusion of random Indic words in sentences. While most try to confine themselves to English while talking to Caucasians, I've witnessed a couple of hilarious incidents where someone unwittingly uses some Hindi in their sentences to a foreigner.

So the only course of action I see here is to just keep talking to others. Get rid of that mental block for bad grammar, and try to glean as many phrases as possible. It took me a couple of months to both get comfortable with spoken Hindi and Indian English; if you make a conscious effort, it might take much less time.

Problem #2 - words and phrases that I use, where no-one has the slightest clue what I'm on about! Sometimes it's fine, sometimes I have to have a few goes at rephrasing it to get a version that's understood, and sometimes it all seems fine but later I discovered they understood something completely different!

This is one of my personal pet peeves — there are a lot of idioms (et cetera) that I like to use, but nobody gets them. The way to fix this is simple in essence, though possibly hard in execution:

Treat Indian English as a completely separate language

I personally do this. My vocabulary in the two are different (not even subsets). It's at a stage that my mind won't come up with confusing sentences while I'm talking with Indians unless I explicitly ask it to. I still use a slightly higher level vocabulary than some are used to, but that's due to a change of my peer group which I haven't had a chance to fully adjust to1.

This ought to happen automatically as you start talking with others, but if you keep a conscious track of it, it happens much faster. You won't lose the ability to speak in your original British "language", either (It's like learning to ride a bike!)

1. Currently I'm in college with a larger variety of people (location wise) than in the past. Approximately half the country uses Hindi much more than English, including as a link language, which means that there are many people for whom English is a third or neglected second language. The roles for Hindi and English swap in certain cities and most of the South. So, depending on where you are, the average vocabulary level changes.

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Just because of the sheer diversity in India I am told that people within India do not really understand each other's English either. A lot of people will pronounce sh as suh (nation vs nasun) and you can just never know who will.

A lot of the confusion will depend on the type of people you are interacting with. As you rightly said a few percent of the people will exactly get what you are saying. Most won't. Although I am not sure if there exist any phrases that people globally haven't heard or will not understand. When interacting with my Indian colleagues, I consciously make an effort to talk as simply as possible. I learnt this the hard way. Referring to a defect in our systems when I said something about a person X (which meant our company should sue him and I wanted someone in India do take legal action about it) - I said 'He didn't do nothing about it' which to my colleagues meant that he (X) actually did something about it and everyone forgot about it!

Nothing beats making great friends with someone who understands your pun/slang/phrases the way you meant to say it - and asking him/her how you could rephrase it for a wider audience. These friends should also help you understand no body uses the word million in India the way it's meant to be used. As you may have learnt by now, its ten lakhs.

Another thing that can help is to watch (India-related) stand up comics. A lot of stand up comics like (from the top of my head) Russel Peters and Aziz Ansari make astute observations of differences in English spoken in India and the way its spoken around the world. This can help with your problems 1 & 2.

This link has a few helpful pointers too.

  • It's worth noting that "He didn't do nothing about it" is incorrect everywhere in English (unless you mean exactly what your friend thought you meant). But of course, there are still many people who speak this way--but to me it sounds very uneducated. – Flimzy Apr 7 '14 at 23:06
  • This is not actually true. Indians are very good at understanding other indians' english. – Click Upvote Oct 11 '14 at 1:05
  • @ClickUpvote Can you give references to your claim of this not being true ? Also, its Indians not indians – happybuddha Oct 11 '14 at 11:01
  • @happybuddha I'm Pakistani, and in movies, etc, I'm able to understand any indian character speaking english, whichever part of india they're from. – Click Upvote Oct 23 '14 at 14:35
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Try not to use any slang. E.g, instead of saying 'Do you want to have a go', say 'Do you want to try'.

Your accent is just as hard for them to understand as their accent is for you. So, try to speak slowly and clearly.

Most people in india are actually educated under the british english system rather than american, so you'll find that they use the british terms for things rather than american. E.g, 'Ketchup' rather than 'tamato sauce'.

As for understanding indian english, realize that the grammar is going to be pretty bad most of the time. Learn to pay attention to the verbs and ignore pronouns, adjectives, etc.

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